"Shelby could drink me under the table," says Ken Burns, recalling his favorite Memphian, the storyteller and popular historian Shelby Foote.
But Burns, at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre last week, wasn't here to share war stories, at least not his own. Burns previewed his latest film, The War, a 15-part World War II documentary airing in late September and early October on PBS. The saga features participants' points of view on the three fronts — Europe, the Pacific, and home.
Foote inspired Burns to overlap these distinct but concurrent layers of action during the production of The Civil War. As Burns struggled with his depiction of that war's multiple fronts, as well as powerful social and political ingredients, Foote reminded the filmmaker that "God is the greatest dramatist of all."
Unlike past Burns films, The War takes a grass-roots perspective on the action and contrasts WWII films that focus on leaders and battle strategies. Burns also hopes to counter the prevalent assumption of WWII as a noble conflict. "We think we know it and we don't," he says. "We call it the 'Good War' when it was the worst war of all time. Nearly 60 million people lost their lives."
These perceptions joined with a sense of historical urgency to push Burns through this latest project, which began filming in 2001.
"We're at a point where we're losing 1,000 WWII veterans a day," Burns explains. "In a few years, it will be impossible to make this film. The Second World War will be the province of historians. No matter how good they are, they won't be able to give you the first-person material that we've been able to get for this film."
In addition to promoting the film, Burns encourages WWII veterans and families to record their war stories for posterity. The Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, online at www.loc.gov/vets, provides instructions on how to record veteran interviews and submit them for cataloging in the library's permanent collection.
The War revolves around these first-person accounts. "You won't get every battle," Burns says, "but you'll have an intimate understanding of what it was like to be there."